Honoring all victims of war, including those who resisted

David McCartney is retired University of Iowa Archivist, a position he held from 2001 until 2022. He delivered these remarks on November 11, 2022 at the Veterans for Peace event on Iowa City’s Ped Mall.

Thank you all for joining us this morning as we observe Armistice Day.

The original intent of this day, and our observance of it at this hour, is to commemorate the agreement that ended the First World War, an agreement signed in France between Germany and the Allied forces.

It was a prelude to peace negotiations, beginning on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, in 1918. Armistice is Latin for “to stand or still arms.”

By an act of Congress in 1954, the name of the holiday was changed to Veterans Day. Some, including the novelist Kurt Vonnegut and Rory Fanning of Veterans for Peace, have urged the U.S. to resume observation of November 11th as Armistice Day, a day to reflect on how we can achieve peace as it was originally observed.

It is in that spirit that we honor the original intent of Armistice Day this morning by honoring all victims of war, including those who resisted war, those who have advocated for peace.

Those who advocate for peace may do so in ways that challenge us. I would like to take the next few minutes to share with you stories of three advocates for peace, all associated with the University of Iowa over the past century, but each one following his own conviction in his own way.

Milt Felsen

Milt Felsen was a University of Iowa student from 1933 to 1935. He was from New York and was a prominent, some would say radical, antiwar activist on campus who also opposed fascism. He joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in 1937 as part of the resistance against Generalissimo Franco in Spain. After the Spanish Civil War, he helped form the O.S.S., the Office of Strategic Services, in World War II. Felsen was taken prisoner of war and eventually fled Nazi Germany, returning to the United States more convinced than ever of war’s insanity and its extreme human cost.

His book, The Anti-Warrior: A Memoir, was released in 1989 by the University of Iowa Press, and it recounts not only what happened in Felsen’s own experience, but also delves into a discussion of why war happens.

Kurt Vonnegut

It was here in Iowa City where Vonnegut transformed the “Dresden novel,” as he called it in its early draft stages, into Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade. Vonnegut’s first best-selling novel dramatically advanced his rank among contemporary authors of the time. The book rose to the top of The New York Times‘ best seller list and became emblematic of the anti-war movement when it was released in 1969.

With elements of autobiography and science fiction, Slaughterhouse-Five recounts the life of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who survived the horrors of the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. Vonnegut, himself a survivor of the ordeal as a prisoner of war, had accumulated notes about his experiences for over 20 years, attempting to produce a novel that would capture the horrors and futility of war. His work came to fruition during his time as a member of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty during the mid 1960s.

Stephen Lynn Smith

On October 20, 1965, a sophomore stepped up to the microphone at a weekly forum called Soapbox Soundoff in the Iowa Memorial Union. At that time it was a Wednesday noon hour tradition on this campus, an outlet for anyone to voice an opinion on just about anything. It became a hub of debate during the raucous 1960s era of campus protest. During his five minutes on the stage, Steve Smith took the extraordinary step of publicly burning his military draft registration card in protest of the U.S. war in Vietnam. He did so in defiance of the law – risking up to five years in federal prison and a $10,000 fine – a law which had been enacted by Congress just a few weeks before. As he burned his draft card, Steve said that five years in prison would be a small price to pay for protesting what he believed to be an unjust war. He was only the second individual in the U.S. that fall to protest despite the newly-enacted penalties, and he was the first to do so on a college campus.

Steve Smith was 20 years old at the time. He entered the university in the fall of 1963, an ROTC student majoring in engineering. He grew up in Marion, just outside Cedar Rapids, the youngest of four boys. His parents, Frank and Gertrude Smith, were hard-working, middle class Iowans. In high school, Steve lettered in three sports, belonged to several clubs, and was inducted into the National Honor Society at Marion High School.

In the summer of 1964, at the end of his freshman year here, Steve joined about a dozen of his fellow University of Iowa students and traveled to Mississippi to participate in Freedom Summer, an effort to register African Americans in that state to vote, a right that was historically denied by a white-dominated power structure that enforced Jim Crow-era laws. Nationally, more than 800 people volunteered. The work was dangerous; that summer three civil rights workers were murdered by a posse that included members of the Ku Klux Klan. Other volunteers faced violence, including Steve and a co-worker from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Eric Morton. Steve and Eric were detained and beaten severely by white law enforcement officers outside Jackson while delivering voter registration materials to Greenwood, about two hours away. They never completed the trip. Steve and Eric were undeterred; they remained in Mississippi and continued their field work until the project’s end in August.

Steve’s activism was unabated. Back home, in the spring of 1965 he organized an eight-day hunger strike in front of the Iowa City post office downtown, raising over $4,000 for civil rights workers in Selma, Alabama. That would be about $37,000 today.

In 1965, as President Lyndon Johnson committed hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel to Vietnam, public opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of Johnson’s war policy. Going against the grain of popular opinion was Steve’s controversial protest at the IMU.

And it was arguably an act of patriotism. In that vein, the historian Howard Zinn once said, Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.

George McGovern, a longtime U.S. senator and candidate for president in 1972, once said that the highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one’s country deep enough to call her to a higher plain.

Steve exhibited patriotism on that day in October of 1965. He paid a high price for his beliefs. He was convicted in U.S. District Court in Des Moines in 1966 for his actions, and while he was sentenced to three years’ probation, the consequences of his actions followed him. He was estranged from his parents and much of his community, at least in the years immediately following his protest. Finding a steady job was almost impossible; employers firing him once they learned of his protest.

Eventually Steve found his livelihood in computer science and by the 1990s was an instructor at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids. Unfortunately a stroke cut short Steve’s life; he died in 2009 at the age of 64.

Today we honor the good work of people like Steve. We honor his patriotism, his willingness to question our government’s actions. We honor his desire for a more just and generous and peaceful society. And we honor his legacy of courage that bloomed on our campus 57 years ago.

The University has taken steps to acknowledge this act of civil disobedience, and it has done so by recently installing a plaque in the Iowa Memorial Union. The plaque was unveiled last month and it recounts Steve Smith’s antiwar protest and its historic significance, an event that prompted further debate about the war not only on campus, but across the state and across the nation. I invite you to visit and view the plaque, which is located on the lower level of the Iowa Memorial Union near the south entrance.

The debate over war is never-ending.

This past week the investigative journal The Intercept reported that the U.S. has fought in more than a dozen so-called secret wars over the last 20 years. The story by Nick Turse quotes from a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law. Through a combination of ground combat, airstrikes, and operations by U.S. proxy forces, these conflicts have raged from Africa to the Middle East to Asia, often completely unknown to the American people and with minimal congressional oversight.

The article quotes Katherine Yon Ebright, legal counsel in the Brennan Center: “This proliferation of secret war is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it is undemocratic and dangerous. The conduct of undisclosed hostilities in unreported countries contravenes our constitutional design. Yon Ebright goes on to say that it invites military escalation that is unforeseeable to the public, to Congress, and even to the diplomats charged with managing U.S. foreign relations.”

According to the report, these clandestine conflicts have been enabled by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, enacted in the wake of the September 11 attacks, as well as the covert action statute, which allows secret, unattributed operations, primarily conducted by the CIA.

The United States has also relied on a set of obscure security cooperation authorities that The Intercept has previously investigated, including in an exposé earlier this year that revealed the existence of unreported U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Other countries are affected as well: Afghanistan, Cameroon, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, and Tunisia, as well as a country in the Asia-Pacific region that has not yet been publicly identified.

The report was released last Thursday, just over a week ago, and according to The Intercept it offers the most complete analysis yet of the legal underpinnings, congressional confusion, and Pentagon obfuscation surrounding these efforts and explains how and why the Defense Department has been able to conduct under-the-table conflicts for the last 20 years.

Representative Sara Jacobs, a California Democrat and member of the House Armed Services Committee, says “The Brennan Center’s report underscores the need to shine a light on our defense activities that have been cloaked in secrecy for too long. At the bare minimum, the public and Congress need to know where and why we’re sending our service members into harm’s way.” Jacobs adds, “I hope this report strengthens the urgency of Congress taking back its war powers, eliminating existing loopholes in security cooperation programs, and ensuring our strategies match our values, goals, and commitment to our service members.”

What can we do? How do we respond, when our government engages in these practices? What can we do, individually or collectively?

We might feel powerless, we might feel hopeless, but we can start with ourselves. And we can do so on our terms. At age 18, in 1974, I registered for the Selective Service as a conscientious objector. It was a symbolic act, as the draft had been suspended by that time; I nonetheless found it necessary to commit myself to doing so. Yet as a U.S. taxpayer I realize I am complicit in the activities recounted in the Brennan Center report. Increasing charitable donations, in lieu of taxes, is perhaps one way to address this.

There is no single answer. But a common thread is hope. Rebecca Solnit writes,

I believe in hope as an act of defiance, or rather as the foundation for an ongoing series of acts of defiance, those acts necessary to bring about some of what we hope for while we live by principle in the meantime. There is no alternative, except surrender. And surrender not only abandons the future, it abandons the soul.

This of course is easier said than done. But if we recognize that the decisions we make come from our truth, as Steve Smith had done in 1965 in the face of hostility, we may find peace with ourselves. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhaur said, All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

In closing, I would like to share this from Kristen Suagee-Beauduy:

Resistance is not a one lane highway. Maybe your lane is protesting, maybe your lane is organizing, maybe your lane is counseling, maybe your lane is art activism, maybe your lane is surviving the day. Do NOT feel guilty for not occupying every lane. We need all of them.

Thank you.

Top photo: John Jadryev, President of Veterans For Peace Chapter #161, holds a bell and strikes it eleven times at 11:00 am on November 11 in Iowa City. Photo by Mike Finley, published with permission.

About the Author(s)

David McCartney